NFC rookie long shots to watch

PFW staff
NFC rookie long shots to watch

It is no easy chore for seventh-round picks to make NFL rosters, and the task is no less daunting for undrafted free agents. But it can happen. Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin, who led Seattle in catches, yards and receiving TDs after going unselected out of Stanford in 2011, is a shining example of a player making the most of an opportunity.

Seventh-rounders and undrafted free agents don't come without ready-made selling points for clubs. They are cheaper to keep on the roster than veteran players. Their youth is appealing, too. The hungry, healthy and skilled have a chance to make a club no matter how they arrive. 

We now take a closer look at one seventh-round pick or undrafted free agent who could stick with each NFC club in 2012: 


Cowboys OG Ronald Leary (undrafted)

Because this list is restricted to rookies, we can’t pick the latest buzz-worthy Cowboy, WR Andre Holmes, who spent last year on the practice squad and is a candidate to be one of the top five wideouts. We instead will go with Leary, whom the team was set to draft in Round Six but failed to do so because of lingering issues with a degenerative knee condition. If he’s healthy, Leary is hardworking, strong and nasty and could win a job at guard, where there is some uncertainty. Undrafted Columbia OT Jeff Adams also has a good frame and could surprise.

Giants DT Markus Kuhn (seventh-round pick)

Kuhn has been held out of practices because of a leg laceration, but head coach Tom Coughlin, who called the 26-year-old, German-born tackle a “very, very interesting young man,” seems to like what he has. “We studied him on tape and we thought that he would be an outstanding prospect for us. He is a thick body; (he’s a) powerful young man who I think will put some more weight on and he will be able to squat in there and do a nice job inside.” Kuhn clearly is raw, having played club ball in Germany before coming to the U.S. — with only one year of starting — at North Carolina State. But DL coach Robert Nunn, who has worked with equally unpolished (though clearly more gifted) DE Jason Pierre-Paul, is very good at developing players and could have a rough gem in Kuhn. “We are excited about him,” Coughlin said.

Eagles RB Chris Polk (undrafted)

Even more so than seventh-round RB Bryce Brown, who comes littered with questions surrounding his character and commitment, Polk has a great chance to earn a backup role to LeSean McCoy. Polk ran for more than 4,000 yards at Washington and totaled 1,488 last season with 12 touchdowns. But despite him starting 38 consecutive games, concerns about Polk’s shoulder, hip and knee injuries left him undrafted. If healthy, Polk has a great chance to be McCoy’s backup, and considering the contract extension that McCoy just signed, the Eagles want to protect their asset better. He was among the NFL leaders in reps taken by a running back, and the Eagles’ other backs last season had a combined 54 carries in the first 15 games of the season. Diminutive RB Dion Lewis is probably best as a third back, whereas Polk’s size (211 pounds) and running style make him more of an inside runner and better complement to McCoy.

Redskins CB Chase Minnifield (undrafted)

Had he been fully healthy, Minnifield — the son of former Browns four-time Pro Bowler Frank Minnifield — might have been a second- or third-round pick. Instead, knee injuries knocked him out of the draft entirely, and he currently has been only a light participant in team workouts after coming off January microfracture surgery. The Redskins have a need at corner, especially at the nickel slot position, which was a problem last season. When Minnifield signed as an undrafted free agent, new secondary coach Raheem Morris told him he probably would help the team, and he has the capability of playing inside. But projecting Minnifield to a role at this stage is questionable.



Bears OG-OT James Brown (undrafted)

With the issues they have had protecting off the edges in recent years, the Bears were an attractive destination for undrafted offensive linemen looking for a good opportunity to make a team. The Bears list Brown as a guard/tackle and he might fit best playing inside, while fellow undrafted rookie A.J. Greene is a full-time tackle. However, Brown was considered the better talent of the two by draft evaluators. If J’Marcus Webb struggles and Chris Williams and Gabe Carimi fail to avoid injury again, Brown — who started every game at left tackle for Troy over the past three seasons — very well could find himself in the lineup.

Lions LB Travis Lewis (seventh-round pick)

A four-year starter at Oklahoma, Lewis will contend for a reserve role, and the Lions’ LB depth is not especially strong. Lewis is instinctive and athletic, but he’s undersized and must improve his hand use. He will need to adjust quickly to the pro game to make a Lions club that’s on the rise. "As much as anything, a guy that steps right on the field in college at a major level of competition and starts for four years, I’ve got a lot of respect for that," Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said after Lewis was drafted. "He showed a lot of toughness this year and he’s been productive.”

Packers OT Andrew Datko (seventh-round pick)

Datko is definitely on the outside looking in at left tackle behind Marshall Newhouse, the starter at the OLT spot most of last season, and 2011 first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod. But the four-year starter at left tackle at Florida State has excellent size (6-6, 315 pounds) and agility, and if not for three surgeries on his left shoulder dating back to high school, he probably would have warranted legitimate first-round consideration. Neither Newhouse, who had his share of breakdowns last season, nor Sherrod, who is coming off a season-ending knee injury, are sure bets for success on Aarton Rodgers’ blind side by any means. With that in mind, it’s worth keeping an eye on Datko, who has quick feet, works well in space and has a good head on his shoulders.

Vikings LB Audie Cole (seventh-round pick)

Cole could fill a few roles — as a backup linebacker at two spots and as a special-teamer. He has experience playing inside and outside in college, and though Cole won’t start initially, he has the toughness and smarts to be a capable reserve. But perhaps more importantly, Cole could fill a crucial special-teams role. The play on those units dropped off significantly once Heath Farwell was released. Fellow seventh-rounder, DT Trevor Guyton, was a surprising draft slider, and he could have an impact as a reserve tackle, where there is not a ton of quality depth.



Falcons WR-RS James Rodgers (undrafted)

Adding high-character players to the roster is always a priority for GM Thomas Dimitroff, and Rodgers, who went undrafted, would fit in very well in Atlanta’s locker room. He’s going to have to carve a niche on special teams to make the team, but he has the right mentality for that kind of role and Atlanta is looking for a kick returner to emerge following Eric Weems’ departure in free agency. Rodgers is short and has small hands. He also has undergone multiple knee surgeries and his durability is a concern. He has playmaking ability, though, and stands a chance to join his younger brother, RB Jacquizz Rodgers, on the final roster.

Panthers FS D.J. Campbell (seventh-round pick)

Carolina plucked the very athletic Campbell with the 216th overall pick in the draft and, while he’s not expected to push for a starting job, the Panthers do expect him to contribute on special teams and provide depth at free safety. So far, so good for the one-year college starter — head coach Ron Rivera indicated that he liked what he saw from Campbell, a fellow California product, at a rookie minicamp earlier this month.

Saints S Johnny Thomas (undrafted)

The Saints have FS Malcolm Jenkins and SS Roman Harper entrenched as their starting safeties, but Thomas, who is also competing against fellow undrafted rookie safeties Jose Gumbs and Jerico Nelson, has a good chance to earn a spot and contribute right away on special teams. Working in his favor is his good size, athleticism and experience as a “gunner” and jammer. If he stays focused, a job as a backup safety is well within reach.

Buccaneers RB Michael Smith (seventh-round pick)

The vast majority of the Buccaneeers’ carries will be divided between first-round pick Doug Martin and LeGarrette Blount, but the Bucs want better depth and skill diversity than they had at running back last season and Smith is in line to be the No. 3 back. He has the speed to offer a change of pace and good hands to factor as a receiver. Smith brings a competitive grinder mentality that should connect with head coach Greg Schiano.



Cardinals WR Tre Gray (undrafted)

Nobody among the Cardinals’ undrafted rookies has really jumped out yet, but one wideout daily team observers tell us might be worth keeping an eye on is Gray, who set single-season school records with 95 catches for 1,187 yards and four TDs as a senior at Richmond. After leading the Spiders in receiving each of his final three seasons, word is Gray looked like he knew what he was doing in early camp activity. Seventh-round OT Nate Potter isn’t likely to make much of an impact this season but the starting left tackle at Boise State the past four seasons also looks the part and figures to start making his presence felt not too far down the road.

Rams OLB Aaron Brown (seventh-round pick)

The first of two seventh-round draft picks, Brown was a very productive weak-side linebacker the past two years at Hawaii (186 tackles and 9½ sacks) who would appear to have a decent opportunity to, at the very least, get plenty of playing time at one or both OLB spots for the Rams. Competing against the likes of free-agent pickups Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggan and third-year player Josh Hull, it would not be a total shock if Brown ended up sneaking into the starting lineup. New head coach Jeff Fisher believes Brown is an explosive player who runs well. As is the case with more than a few of the Rams’ draft picks this season, Brown is a talented player who has had his share of offseason issues (he was suspended from Hawaii’s 2011 season opener after an arrest in a bar fight).

49ers OLB Cam Johnson (seventh-round pick)

After hitting a home run last year with seventh-round picks Bruce Miller, a converted defensive end who went on to be a very serviceable fullback, and Mike Person, who is competing for the starting ORG job this season, the Niners might have helped themselves with another seventh-round nugget in Johnson. With fifth-round OLB Darius Fleming suffering a season-ending torn ACL in the Niners’ first rookie minicamp, Johnson could see more action as the likely fourth outside linebacker behind Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson. A definite tweener (he played defensive end in a 4-3 scheme his last two years at Virginia) with natural pass-rush ability, Johnson has been compared by some observers to Jason Taylor and Joey Porter.

Seahawks CB Donny Lisowski (undrafted)

It’s very doubtful Lisowski will make an impact similar to undrafted 2011 phenom Doug Baldwin, who ended up leading the Seahawks in catches, receiving yards and receiving TDs last season. But just like Baldwin a year ago at this time, Lisowski, a tryout player out of Montana, made one play after another in the team’s first rookie minicamp this season. Head coach Pete Carroll made a point of singling out the local product out of Seattle’s O’Dea High School whom he signed shortly after the three-day camp ended. Lisowski adds blazing speed (4.38 40-time) to the Seahawks’ already-excellent young secondary.